Returning to Life with Jane Austen’s “Emma”

While recovering from eye surgery, I spent a lot of time looking down at the floor. I saw that the beige carpet was worn away—not discolored or faded but just worked through by the ceaseless back-and-forth of my desk chair. What do you see when a carpet is worn away? The floor? No, just more carpet below the surface. A little higher, at the desk above the carpet, a pristine new keyboard had keys so shallow that the usual English-muffin crumbs did not gather among them. A triumph of modern design.

The views were hardly inspiring. Something else besides the carpet and my desk must be attended to, or I would go mad. Wagner! Wagner wrote very long operas. “Die Meistersinger,” for instance, the songwriting-contest opera, the epic comedy about writing a great tune. The four and a half hours of “Die Meistersinger,” capped by the magnificent third act, one of the greatest stretches in all music, brought relief for a while. But only for a while.

My general task was to look down. To keep my head slung in a kind of padded donut that sat on my desk, and to do this for at least twelve hours a day, and for a week. I was allowed to take maybe ten minutes out of every hour for stretching, eating, looking out the window, but my job, my life, was to go south. The eye surgery itself was a great, even moving experience (really), but for a restless, jiggling sort of person the week-long physical recovery was medieval in its hellishness.

There was no pain at all, just a debilitating imposition on physical happiness. A healing gas bubble had been inserted in my eye; gas rises, and the recovering patient, looking down, allows the bubble to do its work. After a few days, I could actually see, merely by opening my eye, the bubble itself, a large, menacing, liquid dark planet whose mass covered the lower two-thirds of my vision. My own science-fiction movie, Venus moving in on Jupiter—located right in my eye, and beautiful, too. The top of the planet was a gently rounded curve, and above it, in blurred and watery form, the vision that might some day get better.

“Meistersinger” was finally over. The young knight, Walther Von Stolzing, eager for the hand of Eva, composes and recomposes his song and sings it publically, and when the last jubilant hosannas of praise for the great song, for holy German art, for Walther, for the wonderful master cobbler-poet Hans Sachs (the hero of the opera) had been thundered out by timpani, brass, and chorus, I knew I had to shift gears. Wagner was too much, too demanding; “Götterdämmerung” was definitely not in the cards for me. Time for audiobooks! I listened to Hillary Huber reading “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,” the third volume (from 2013) of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, which ends with long passages of impassioned confusion as the heroine, Elena, or Lena, at last has an affair with Nino, her arrogant childhood friend, now a distinguished professor. Then Lena decides to … No, no more of Ferrante! Not now, when her restlessness only increased my own. I needed something lighter, drier, faster.

“Emma”! I hadn’t read Jane Austen’s “Emma” for decades, and at this moment (I hadn’t known) the novel was exactly two hundred years old. “Emma,” it turns out, was published on this day, December 23, 1815.

There are numerous spoken versions of Austen’s novel, but in my easily flustered state I lunged at the first one I saw. The reader was a man named Michael Page, who certainly sounds English but lives and teaches in America and has read dozens of texts for audiobooks. Page was a strong, supple reader: precise, elocutionary, and, softening his voice a little, he was able to crisply read some of Austen’s most brilliantly ironized lines. Emma has vowed never to marry, and when she and her protegé, the cuddly Harriet Smith, who falls in love all the time, talk of the possibility of Emma’s being an old maid Emma quiets Harriet’s fears with this: “It is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public. A single woman with a very narrow income must be a disagreeable, ridiculous old maid, the proper sport of boys and girls. But a single woman of good fortune is always respectable and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else.” Oh, yes, a generous public. Jane Austen’s irony never ages, never loses its fierce critical edge.

As everyone has said, Austen was one of the first modern writers, one of the first thoroughly to understand the unconscious and such things as insincerity and false candor. She understood that we are almost invariably subjective and self-interested. Hearing the book read aloud makes it easier to recognize when people are fooling themselves—we can hear that the ridiculous snob Mrs. Elton, married to the town’s vicar, pretends to be concerned for others but tries always to make people feel inferior to herself, that even Emma’s superlative friend Knightley, intelligent as he is, may not be aware of how much his protectiveness toward Emma and his disdain for the handsome young Frank Churchill cover his own romantic interest in her. The reading aloud brings out the character’s intention to be believed, which is so revealing of the desire to predominate beneath it.

But listening to Page read Knightley made me aware of my troubles with him as a reader. Page has the unfortunate habit of over-characterizing some of the voices, and he makes Knightley sound too old—imposing, certainly, but almost crusty, as if Knightley were a retiring country gentleman of sixty rather than what he is, a vigorous young man of thirty-seven. In my manacled state, I called out to Page to lighten up. But he did not respond, and hearing his over-characterizing of Knightley I began to hear it also in the voices that he used for some of the other men. As for women, I accepted, at first, his stern and straight-ahead voice for Austen’s narration and his slightly softened voice for Emma herself, but his rendering of little Harriet Smith and the loquacious, inane Miss Bates—the town’s babbling brook—sounded like the falsetto used by English music-hall comics and cross-dress artists from time immemorial. Breathy, weak, ludicrous. Enough.

I switched to the first woman reader I saw (there are several). Her name was Alison Larkin, and I clicked on to the beginning of the book—and was immediately disappointed. Larkin’s voice, I thought, was too light and tinkling for Jane Austen. Did no one read this stuff well? Where is Emma Thompson when you need her? Or, perhaps, Helen Mirren. But when your head is resting in a padded donut, you had better learn patience if you’re not going to lose your mind altogether. Skipping to where I had left off with Page (somewhere near the middle, when Emma is flirting with the adroit but disingenuous Frank Churchill), I understood what Larkin was doing. Raised in England by adoptive parents, Alison Larkin was actually born in America. She herself is a comic writer and performer (who has made much of her hybrid origins), and she approaches Austen as a satirist. The initial tinkling sound darkens and attains body and weight as the book goes on; she makes her voice lower and heavier for the men without caricaturing them. Like Page, she italicizes, but she has genuine theatrical skill, so her Mrs. Elton, swooping and dipping in flights of arrogant self-serving nonsensical observation, and her Miss Bates, anxious and desperately self-conscious even as she talks without end, are both sustained comic creations. The voice reveals all.

From my two listening experiences, I drew a momentous conclusion: in this reading-novels-aloud business, women can do men better than men can do women, for the simple reason that women can sound tougher by lowering their tones and shortening their vowels, whereas men trying to sound female fall into a changed voice that comes off as comical in the wrong way—patronizing rather than affectionate.

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